Learning Ambidexterity in Organization

Here’s the bottom line on learning and organizations: research into formerly high performing organizations have consistently found that organizational exploitation drives out exploration. What does that mean? It’s simple, as organizations exploit the marketplace by doing what they do best for-profit and market share, they consequently stop exploring and looking for new ideas, they stop learning in critical ways which could guarantee future success. It’s not hard to do in companies if you think about it.

For one thing, it’s difficult to do two things at once, particularly if those two things appear to conflict with one another or be unrelated, requiring different thinking, and acting. Secondly, there always seems to be some other “alligators close to the boat” which need immediate swatting before you can even think about exploring, being creative, or learning anything new. Companies that adopt this exploitation lather, rinse, and repeat mindset however risk losing the balance they once had between everyday performance and innovative creativity and the ability to leverage learning in new ways that guarantee sustained long-term success. To put this performance strategy into a sports metaphor, they’re setting themselves up for a great short game but no long one!

Exploitation drives out exploration. If 40 plus years of research about exploitation and exploration says this is an inevitable dilemma, and it does, then what’s the solution? The solution is the practice of organizational ambidexterity, a type of learning organization with the ability to be simultaneously exploitative and explorative in the marketplace, managing both in a rhythmic balance and dance which promotes both short and long-term performance and success. Mastering this however is not easy and takes a certain amount of trust and grit, however, for the companies which have adopted this model and routinely execute it like Toyota and Google to name a few, it is a combination that works and works well.

Organizations seldom consider their historical behavior and are often unaware of the evolutionary changes that led them into this success trap of continually favoring exploitation over exploration.

Some companies feel as though they lack the resources, knowledge, or ability to risk growing through exploration, while others fall into a pattern which is perpetuated by cultural or structural inertia, either becoming too resistant to change by norms, stories, and company rules (cultural) or with an organizational business structure too rigid to adopt anything but the smallest of changes (structural), when this happens they effectively become a “one-trick pony.” So, what does it take to have an ambidextrous organization, an AO? Today we are going to discuss just what ambidexterity is and its types. In the coming series of articles we’re going to look at the different aspects of organizational ambidexterity, we will cover culture in an AO, the ambidextrous leader, learning, complexity, structure, and what your company can do to become more ambidextrous. Check in with me each month as we walk through the intricacies, and simplicity of the ambidextrous organization.   

Exploitation and exploration (Ambidexterity). Before we dive into the types of organizational ambidexterity in an AO lets cover a few definitions. Exploitation is the refinement of existing knowledge within an organization’s departments, its associated with existing improvements, increasing efficiency, and making incremental adjustments, in other words, it’s the business of doing better what you have already learned to do. Exploration, on the other hand, is the pursuit of new knowledge which includes variety generation, distant search, risk-taking, experimentation, and discovery, in other words, it’s learning to do new things for the first time.

Organizational ambidexterity then is defined as the ability of an organization to both explore and exploit, to compete in mature technologies and markets where unique knowledge, efficiency, control, and incremental improvement are prized and in new technologies and markets where flexibility, autonomy, and experimentation are needed.

By now it should be apparent that all these traits are great ones to have! Let’s look at the three types of ambidexterity in practice today.

Three types of ambidexterity. The first type, Temporal ambidexterity, is practiced by all organizations whether they realize it or not. When you think of temporal ambidexterity think about switching back and forth from exploitive to explorative behavior and back again at some specified time. If your practicing temporal ambidexterity your organization is taking a break from “converging”, focusing intently on what it does best and switching to “diverging” and widening the focus onto new things. Temporally ambidextrous practices might be your company picnic once a year or that team-building retreat you go to in the mountains. It might be an annual convention or anything the company endorses which encourages you to take in new learning and operate in less or differently structured spaces.

Structural ambidexterity, the next type, can be described as a separate “explorative” space created by the organization in which it is allowable to explore and be creative or innovative. To understand this type, think of any organization with a research and development (R&D) department, advanced development division, or creative space. Examples of this would be like Disney’s “DreamWorks” division or Lockheed Martin’s famous aircraft “Skunkworks”, a structurally ambidextrous space is any designated space where it’s permissible to be creative or innovative.

The whole organization functions as one productive and creative space as needed, this kind of ambidexterity gets into a companies’ DNA!

Our last type, contextual ambidexterity, is the most difficult type for an organization to achieve but arguably the best. It’s safe to say that when you reach this level you and your organization have arrived as an AO. To understand contextual ambidexterity, think about biology at a cellular level. Ambidexterity, the ability to exploit and explore in appropriate amounts and at appropriate times reaches your organization’s culture down to the individual employee level. No “switching” rules (temporal ambidexterity) are required by the organization at this point, though they most likely still happen and no specific explorative safe “space” (structural ambidexterity) is needed though you may still have one. The whole organization functions as one productive and creative space as needed, this kind of ambidexterity gets into a companies’ DNA! Check in again next month when we discuss the ambidextrous culture. Bye for now! Eric

Dr. Zabiegalski is available to talk to your organization or venue about this ground-breaking research or speak informatively and eloquently on the subjects of organizational culture, leadership, strategy, learning, complexity, neuroscience in business, creativity, mindfulness, talent management, personal success, emotional intelligence, and Action Learning. Contact Eric Today.


Dr. Eric Zabiegalski
Dr. Eric Zabiegalski
Dr. Eric Zabiegalski is a graduate of George Washington University in Human and Organizational Learning and has been researching and studying leadership, learning, and change for over 20 years. Eric has been on all sides of the leadership fence from leader and manager to employee and servant and has practiced leadership and served leaders in some of the most coveted and challenging places in the world. With an early professional history as a technical expert, Eric has gone from being a technical SME (subject matter expert) to being a people SME and considers the human mind, human behavior, and consciousness to be the next great frontier for discovery. It is in this realm where he combines his technical subject matter expertise with his human sociological and organizational expertise for the betterment of individuals, organizations, their processes, and humanity. With additional interests in emotional intelligence or "EQ", servant leadership and followership, neuroscience, complexity science, creativity and ambidextrous organizations, Eric has been driven to finding the right balance of qualities, efforts and behaviors in order to not only build better high performing and learning teams but also create a better world in which to live, love, and grow. Eric lives on the Western shore of the Chesapeake Bay close to Washington DC with his wife, daughter, and Chow dog Wamu. Eric is the author of The Rise of the Ambidextrous Organization and Leading Ambidextrous Organizations, Part 1,2,3 (E-Books).

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  1. Ambidextrous is a good lens for this. I appreciate your insights here Eric.

    The rinse and repeat of exploiting what you know has a place.

    Yet your future is in the hand that’s exploring…

    The long haul. And the growth that creates that future you.

    But neither runs solo. And the practical idea of learning ambidexterity is a way to keep both hands doing what each needs to do.



  2. Magnificent article that makes us understand how organizations must evolve to have a favorable development (or at least competitive survival) over time.
    The tension between efficiency and innovation is a fundamental problem in the design of business structures, and is at the basis of the development of a series of alternative solutions in the organizational design. These range from the differentiation of the units in relation to the “environmental problems” faced, to the introduction of integration mechanisms up to the identification of real forms of organization specifically designed to ensure balance between stability and dynamism. In recent decades, the great environmental turbulence and the acceleration of competitive dynamics have generated for most companies a sort of imperative to simultaneously pursue paths of change and exploration and objectives of efficient exploitation of resources and knowledge. A sort of organization that has the ability to continuously and simultaneously pursue stability and innovation, becoming a qualifying and constitutive element of the organization itself.

  3. Thanks, Eric.

    Your analysis coupled with your sense of discovery make for a strong partnership, an AO in a nutshell.

    If we start with the idea that a default setting for humans is to discover and grow (couple with an instinctive pull toward apparent safety), we as leaders can focus on creating a context that includes the safety and frees the discovery. I do not put it as elegantly as you have, yet I think we’re coming at the same horizon through different pathways.

    Please continue fighting the good fight (though I don’t think I could dissuade you). I published Learning Chaos: How Disorder Can Save Education in 2016, having no idea that the pandemic would strike and hammer us with chaos. I’d be happy to send you a copy, or you can get it at Amazon, B&N, etc.

    Finally, please give a listen to the back2different podcast. It’s pro bono, conversations with folks from all over about pushing forward through this derecho rather than trying to push back:

    Have fun. and be well.

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